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Big-state intergalactic warfare: the politics of pessimism in Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem


A sky with two suns - created by Dall-E, in the style of Song Dynasty painter Ma Yuan 馬遠


Re-imagining our political systems goes naturally for science fiction novels: after all, technology and politics are intimately connected. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that any space-age society would have a structure for which our earth-bound political institutions would be quite unsuited. Nevertheless, the political systems of science fiction are always imbued with features that strongly resemble terrestrial models. Ian M. Banks created the post-scarcity and smugly liberal ‘Culture’ civilisation; Isaac Asimov modelled the Galactic Empire on Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and Frank Herbert imagined a world of intergalactic feudal enfeoffment in his Dune novels.

Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, recently produced as an online series by Tencent and soon to appear separately as a Netflix production, is no exception. Even outside of his novels, Liu's professed political stances have been problematic for the commercialisation of the novel in the west. In 2019, his crude, Benthamite justification of China's Xinjiang policy prompted Republican senators to request that Netflix reconsider its plans for the adaption. This spirited defence of Chinese state policy is perhaps difficult to square with a common journalistic narrative that likes to present Chinese science fiction - a genre which has exploded in popularity in the country over the last decade - as a means for 'subtle dissent.' Liu Cixin's trilogy of novels charts the development of human society from the point of first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation onwards, a process which involves several epochs of political organisation and reorganisation. Yet the underpinning philosophy embodies a deep pessimism about the human condition, which justifies the existence of a large - and highly interventionist - state.

In his trilogy, the large state is justified through reference to its capacity to act as a counterbalance to instability, which is presented as much more inherent to the universe than is commonly appreciated. The “three-body problem” referred to in the title of the first novel is the epitome of this instability: a virtually unsolvable mathematical problem related to calculating the orbital patterns of three objects revolving around one another in gravitational space - for example, three suns orbiting each other. An abstruse enough problem, one may think, but it is central to the political implications of the novel.


As the movement of suns in such a solar system is close to random, then a planet embedded in such a system will lack regular seasonal rhythms and diurnal interchange - the sun may rise one morning and set again moments later. Alternatively, it may suddenly appear in the sky as a gargantuan ball of flame, blasting any life unfortunate enough to be outside at the time with deadly heat. Such a planet is the one on which Earth's invaders - the Trisolarians - live. To survive in such conditions, they have evolved biologically and socially to gear the activities of the whole population towards three state-driven tasks: mathematically predicting the movements of the three suns, building the infrastructure necessary to adapt to intermittent periods of extreme cold and heat, and scanning the universe for other habitable planets. Due to the demands of this vast collective effort, individuality is ruled out and liberal democracy is as unlikely to flourish here as in any other state of permanent crisis.


Liu presents the Trisolarians as a foil to human society - an extreme case of totalitarian rule forged under crisis conditions. Yet this does not rule out similarities in the challenges of instability faced by both civilisations. The character of General Chang, who is coordinating Earth's global resources in preparation for meeting the invasion (at that time unknown by the wider population), addresses the notion of latent instability, lurking just beneath the surface:


“Yes, the entire history of humankind has been fortunate. From the Stone Age till now, no real crisis has occurred. We’ve been very lucky. But if it’s all luck, then it has to end one day. Let me tell you: It’s ended. Prepare for the worst.”


Though it is true that humanity has never once in recorded history been invaded by an alien civilization, it would be foolish to take this statement that human society has never been in a 'real crisis' at face value. For one thing, Liu makes explicit comparisons between human political history and the Trisolarians in the novel. For example, in an immersive video game created by a pro-Trisolarian group of scientists to improve cultural understanding of Trisolarian culture, the historical era of the Chinese Warring States (475-221 BC) is transplanted onto a planet with similar conditions to Trisolaris. The choice of historical setting is not coincidental – the Warring States period in Chinese history was characterised by extreme instability that gave rise over time to a series of strong city states and eventually the Qin, the first unified Chinese empire. Under the thumb of the Qin and its successor state, instability faded - at least in the traditional historical narrative. In this sense, cosmic instability is simply substituted in the video game for the social and political instability of the real Warring States.


State-building in the Warring States period follows two themes. Firstly, the emergence of highly extractive states on the 'Legalist' model of governance committed the state to the large-scale mobilisation of human and physical resources for the expansion and stabilisation of borders. As set out by Lord Shang (Shang Yang 商鞅), who was a minister in the state of Qin, the growth of the state is justified in Legalist ideology by the need to tame the social chaos that is caused by humanity's selfish tendencies, and which can only be brought into check through a system of clear incentives and punishments. The pessimism about the human condition in the absence of a state is reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes (without the social contract part). By implementing such a system as described by Lord Shang, the state can accomplish its two main tasks - the development of agriculture and the military. By following this program, the state of Qin ultimately unified China, with the First Emperor of the Qin typically depicted as a Leviathan figure alternately reviled and imitated. In the novel's video game version, the First Emperor directs the mobilisation of millions of people to act as a computational device for calculating the orbital patterns of the three suns. Although the goal of the state here is mathematical calculation rather than agriculture and war, the means of mass mobilisation and the ultimate end of eliminating stability remain the same as in the actual history of the Warring States.


Secondly, states early China were often theocratic in nature – specifically, rule was justified on the basis of one's ability to cultivate a relationship with the cosmos, for the promotion of good harvests and the avoidance of natural disasters. It is theorised that the rulers of the Shang dynasty may have actually performed the office of priests by communing with the heavens, while in later dynasties such as the Han, Chinese emperors and the court astrologers would interpret the signs of heaven and adjust their government policies accordingly. In traditional Chinese historiography, an uptick in instability, manifested in a greater frequency of natural disasters, normally presages the end of this mandate. The association between state religion and the management of natural instability is also made clear in the novel. For example, in an earlier stage of the same video game, a shaman advises King Zhou of Shang to set up a series of pendulums to hypnotise the three suns, a sadly ineffective measure which earns the shaman a brutal execution.


The profundity and imaginative insight of his science fiction worlds need not blind us to the fact that Liu – like much of the Chinese intelligentsia – finds much more sense in the harshness of Hobbes and Mearsheimer than in the rosy tenets of liberal democracy.

In the wider context of the novel, the cosmological pressures that encourage state building return with a vengeance in the present day, as the task of rulers turns to mobilising earth's resources to resist invasion by an alien civilisation. Hence, justification for the state is once more grounded in the need to govern instability, but in contrast to the instability of humankind, this kind of instability emerges from external factors.


The external instability of the cosmos is explained according to a realist theory of interplanetary relations which gives us the title of the second book – “The Dark Forest”. The principle of this theory – that each planetary civilisation is a hunter in the dark forest of the universe, in whose best interests it is to destroy alien civilisations before they develop the technology to destroy you – is essentially the dark, distrustful world of Hobbes's pre-state society, transposed onto the interplanetary stage. When human society wins an early victory against the Trisolarians and once again enters an age of liberalism, it loses sight of this Mearsheimer-esque understanding of international relations, and this – rather than technological inferiority – leads to their being conquered by the Trisolarians. A strong state, prepared to engage in tough bargaining and brinkmanship with other states (interplanetary or otherwise) is therefore also necessary for interstate stability. Echoes with the emphasis on responses to international instability in the CCP report from the 20th Party Congress are not difficult to spot.

While many Chinese science fiction writers – Chen Qiufan among them – are scathing in their stories about the negative social and environmental effects of state-led human endeavour, it is just as plausible that other writers will see the appeal of the large state. The profundity and imaginative insight of his science fiction worlds need not blind us to the fact that Liu – like much of the Chinese intelligentsia – finds much more sense in the harshness of Hobbes and Mearsheimer than in the rosy tenets of liberal democracy.


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